A Plague Of Genius

The sand was unusually hot today as Tarsahet quickly walked to the temporary tent set up for the new priest from Alexandria. The hot sand was burning his toes as his sandals dragged through the loose sand, but he had promised he would come to see the new priest do one of his operations. Although he was skeptical about the results, he promised to witness the operation and wait for the two-week recuperative period that this young priest said was necessary. His claims would either be proven or ridiculed, based mostly on Tarsahet’s judgement.

He pulled aside the door curtain and entered the tent to see four people, three men and one woman, dressed in light-colored garb. The two taller men were the local doctors that Tarsahet had asked to witness this operation with him. If the procedure was successful, he expected them to learn how to do it as well. The third man was younger, a doctor who had recently studied at the university/library in Alexandria. This brash young surgeon was about to demonstrate brain surgery to Tarsahet’s two local surgeons. He had brought with him a trained nurse who was familiar with what he was about to do and had training in all the anesthetics that were available locally. But she had brought with her a new one called opium that had shown promise.

There was a sound outside the tent as the patient had arrived on a light table carried by four strong men. Two other local nurses were attending the man and had him prepared for the surgery. After the four men brought the patient into the tent and set him down in the center, they left, closing the door veil on their way out. The two local nurses checked the patient one last time and went to stand by the two local doctors for whom they worked. They were there to observe the procedure too, since they would be expected to assist these two doctors later.

Since everyone was here, Tarsahet called for the procedure to begin. His time was valuable and his administrative duties were many. The young doctor from Alexandria examined the man lying face down on the table. Everything appeared to be in order. The volunteer patient had his head shaved already and the two local nurses had applied a sterilizing balm to his head. The young doctor, who’s name was Memros, went to a side table and brought a small paintbrush and a bowl of charcoal dust paint mixed with water over to the patient. Memros painted four large lines on the man’s head. The four lines stopped before the middle of his cranium, one fore and aft and one on each side of the center. The water based paint dried very quickly in the hot air of the roomy tent. Memros then went on to explain to the two doctors why the top of the cranium was marked. He said that experiments had shown that there was less damage to the brain by going through the top of the skull than by going in, say, behind the ear, for example. One of the other two doctors, whose name was Potet, said nothing but wondered how many had died to find out that piece of information.

Memros looked at the local doctor as if he had heard his thoughts and remarked that most of this information was gotten from the old archives at the university. The clay tablets explained about the dangers involved with brain surgery and how to minimize the risk. At the mention of the old records from the ancients in Mesopotamia, the local doctor relaxed and once more built up his enthusiasm for this operation. After all, one doesn’t create a genius every day.

Now that Memros had the two doctors’ complete attention, he began the short and simple operation. A flap of skin was cut with the sterilized copper instruments and peeled back. Memros, with the assistance of his nurse, clamped the flap out of the way and began to cut through the skull with a very sharp chisel and mallet. He made a series of cuts in a circle and carefully pulled out the plug of skull. He had been careful to cut the bone at an angle to insure it laid down without falling into the skull when he put it back. The nurse took the skull fragment and placed it carefully on the sterilized fresh linen at the side table.

Memros called the two doctors over to see what he had done. When he was sure they saw and understood, he moved to the next phase of the operation. He walked around to the man lying down on the table and asked him how he felt. Because of the opium, the man’s response was slow but he said he felt alright. Memros reassured him and moved back to the side to begin the entry into the brain itself. He asked the two doctors to stand at the other side so they could see clearly what he was about to do. He then made a cut into the membrane that protected the brain and clamped it back. The two hemispheres of the brain were now clearly visible. Memros then inserted a long copper instrument and angled it’s tip forward slightly. Careful to hold it vertical, He lowered it a short distance into the pink matter of the two hemispheres and then twisted the large knob on top of the instrument. The instrument split into two sharp blades in the front, separated by a small distance. Memros then inserted the instrument forward until it touched the inside of the man’s forhead. He once more twisted the knob and it closed up again. Memros slowly withdrew the instrument along with the pieces of brain flesh he had just cut.They were the dividing edges of the two sides of the brain at the cerebral cortex. Memros explained to the two doctors that the instrument was coated at the side of the front with a special chemical described in the clay tablet he had studied. When he withdrew the instrument, it infused the exposed area of the cortex and speeded up the healing of the flesh at a very fast rate. Memros then explained to the two doctors that the brain would grow together and heal before it could separate itself again. Once again he asked if they understood. When they asserted that they had, Memros and the nurse then administered a sterilizing solution to the brain and closed back the membrane over the brain. He then took a paste he had made and applied it to the edges of the skull hole he had cut. He got the skull fragment he had removed and placed it carefully over the hole. It sealed up the hole and after a few minutes, the paste hardened. Memros then carefully stitched the flap of skin back together over the now-sealed up hole. He applied a salve he’d made up from the ancient formula and applied it liberally over the entire area. At that point, he asked the nurse to bandage the patient’s head. He walked around again and asked the man how he felt. The man spoke with a thick tongue that had little to do with the opiate he’d been given. But he said that he was a little confused. Memros reassured the man that he would feel much better the next day. He asked the man if there was any pain, but the man said there was nothing but a headache.

Tarsahet was bored silly. He looked at the two doctors talking animatedly with Memros about matters concerning the techniques they’d just witnessed. There was nothing more for him to do here but make his exit. He called out to the men and explained that he must return to his administrative duties. He thanked Memros for his excellent work and remarked that his skill was worthy of his reputation. Memros swelled with pride upon the praise of the Governor. He knew he was an excellent surgeon and the endorsement of the Governor would be a big feather in his professional cap. He thanked the Governor for the opportunity and said he would stay for a while until he was sure that the two doctors could do the operations by themselves. Tarsahet thanked him again and made his exit. He was anxious to get back to the boring details of running his province. The sand wasn’t as hot now in the late afternoon. He took his time walking back to his chariot.

On the next day, the patient had recovered enough to stand on his feet. That was remarkable progress in itself, but the man still had a headache. When Memros went to check on his physical condition, he was surprised to find him standing. His
expectations about this man’s recovery had been high but the speed of it was hinted at in the old clay tablets. His earlier experiments in Alexandria were good but nothing like the progress he was seeing here. He concluded his examination and asked the nurse to notify him immediately if there was any problems. His quarters were just down the street a few doors. His nurse agreed and he left.

Saffra, the nurse, checked on the man again and then went to her sleeping area across from the man. She drew the veil partition around her bed and started to undress. It had been a long day and she was tired from the vigil she had to keep for her patient. As she was undressing, she could feel the eyes of the young patient on her body. Although Saffra was not classically beautiful, she was attractive in her own way. Good, she thought. That was a sign that he was healing fast. She smiled to herself and went to bed determined to sleep lightly in case she was needed.

The next morning at daybreak, the young brain surgery patient cried out as if in pain. Saffra immediately jumped out of her bed and ran over to check on him. When she approached his bedside, he suddenly sat up and grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her down on the bed. She was stunned, but recovered quickly. The young man kissed her hard and ripped off her wispy sleeping gown. She was completely naked and vulnerable in front of this brash young man. His face appeared comical to her. His eyes burned with lust, but the bandages on his head had slipped a little and were tilted to the side, giving him a funny appearance. She was torn between her own lust for his young, athletic body and her duty to him as a patient. When he kissed her hard again, she felt her resistance begin to melt. Every time she tried to speak, he kissed her. Eventually she relaxed and realized that he was just determined to have sex with her, not hurt her. Besides, he was kind of handsome, in a rugged, athletic way. She was surprised that, after only a few moments, she had forgotten her duties and was ready to have sex with him. It had been a long time for her. It seemed unimportant now, at the moment. But later, she thought, she would be sorry. It would complicate their patient/nurse relationship. These thoughts drifted away from her mind as she found herself more than a willing partner. Her passion was building to a fever pitch.

Several hours later, Memros entered his patient’s tent to check on his recovery. As he stepped inside, he saw Saffra rebandaging the young man’s head. He told her to stop. He wanted to have a good look at the stitched-up incision on top of the man’s head. Saffra quickly complied and then stepped away from the young man. Memros noticed a more gentle and caring attitude between the couple. He immediately suspected that there was an intimate link between the two. The way they exchanged looks that lingered just a little longer than normal caused him to believe they were more than just nurse and patient. He made his examination but said nothing to the nurse or the young man. They must both believe that their secret was safe. Memros thought about that for a minute. He might have missed that slight detail if the clay tablets with their odd cunieform writing hadn’t mentioned one of the interesting side effects of the operation. It created an instant and near constant desire for sex. He hadn’t mentioned that to Tarsahet, but he thought he could convince him to supply the young man with concubines to slake his lust. After all, the benefits of having a highly motivated genius working for the ruling class here would begin to have an immediate effect.

Memros completed his examination of the young man. His incision looked healthy and was healing at a very rapid rate. He instructed Saffra to rebandage the man’s head after applying more of his special salve to the incision. He told her to come to his tent afterwards to receive further instructions. She began to rebandage the incision after spreading the sweet-smelling salve over it. The salve reminded her of lotus blossoms. Memros made his leave and went on down to his room to await Saffra’s arrival. He was considering how much to tell her about the effects and that he knew about her emotional involvement. By the time he reached his own room, he had made his decision.

Tarsahet had received Memros’ parchment note. He’d agreed to a meeting in the late morning as long as it was brief. Memros arrived with his nurse and was waiting outside in the lounge area of the low, wide building. He was thinking about the mud brick construction and marveled at how the master builder had managed to beautify the inside of this building. The workers had plastered most of the walls with white coloring to brighten the inside area. Murals and wallpaintings decorated the entire area.The central louging area where Memros and his nurse waited was built around a raised section of roof, circular in design, and supported by pillars arranged in a circle. The resulting circular roof allowed the little heat that accumulated in the building to escape. The large opening all around it let in light and any breeze that may happen too. A slight overhang of the elevated roof kept the direct rays of the sun from striking the floor. The result was a pleasingly cool area that gave an open feeling to the lounge area.Presently, a messenger came to inform Memros that the Governor would see him now.

Memros had a late afternoon meeting with the two local doctors and their nurses. He told them about his meeting with the Governor and he’d gotten permission for them to begin their own operation tomorrow. He had the young man brought to the meeting to meet the two doctors and nurses. Memros showed off his patient proudly. He had him sit down in the middle of the room and Saffra unwrapped his head bandages. The two doctors expressed incredulity at the speed of the healing of the incision. And, as doctors, they were impressed at the fact that there was no sign of infection that should have been evident with such invasive surgery. But to their surprise and delight, the incision was a healthy tan color, the same shade as the rest of his head. As they thought about it, they grew more excited at the prospect of doing their own operation so soon. Memros instructed Saffra to rebandage the young man’s head while the two doctors and Memros went off to celebrate the occasion.

The next day, Memros and the two doctors arranged for an operation the following day. A volunteer was picked from the long list and everything was arranged. Potet, the one who was originally skeptical, was to perform the first one and Sakhmet, the other doctor, would perform one the following day if the same excellent progress was achieved. Memros instructed Saffra to prepare the two nurses for what would be expected of them. Saffra would be there only in an advisory role. Later, in private, he advised Saffra to warn the two nurses about the sexual side effects. The Governor had gladly supplied Memros with a supply of concubines to handle the sexual appetites of the volunteers. The volunteers weren’t told ahead of time, but when they expressed their inevitable desires, the concubines would be supplied. It seemed like a workable solution to Memros, and he went back to his room, satisfied that he had done all he could to prepare. Saffra went to prepare the nurses.

The first operation was a huge success, as good as the one Memros had performed. Potet was a highly skilled surgeon and had a gift for working with the brain-cutting instrument that Memros had provided. Although Potet was older by almost twice as much as Memros, his hands were strong and steady. His skills were evident on the table. When he finally closed and stitched the incision, Memros knew this man was as good a surgeon as any he’d ever seen. Potet wouldn’t have any problems with the operation.

On the next day, Memros knew that these two men were as competant at surgery as he was. And Memros was the best in Alexandria. He was extremely satisfied with their work. Their patients were doing well and things were flowing smoothly in his plans to become the head of The Medical Department at the university at Alexandria. The successes achieved here plus the good word of the Governor should go far to help him achieve that goal. But he knew he had to pay attention to details, to make sure that nothing went wrong.

After a week, the first patient had completely healed and Memros instructed Saffra to remove the stitches. His headaches were gone and he was showing an immense appetite for sex. He now had a trio of concubines assigned to his room every night. Things were going well. The doctors were competant and by now, fully qualified to perform the operation. There was little left to do but wait for the two-week period to be completed and he could think about going back to Alexandria. He missed his wife and son and could hardly wait.

One day before the two-week period was up, Memros received a message from Alexandria by courier. He’d ridden hard to get here in only three days. That must have been a rough ride for the man, thought Memros. The man appeared to be dog-tired, but determined. He didn’t envy the long hot chariot ride this man went through just to deliver this message. He took the scroll from the man and told him to meet him later after he’d been rested and fed. The man agreed and left.

What Memros read gave him a chill. Over the last week, the scroll said, all four of Memros’s experimental subjects had died, roughly one after the other. The scroll said that there was no obvious cause of death. They seem to have aged greatly in the last several weeks of their lives. It was about a year since each was given the operation that Memros was teaching here. Their list of accomplishments was long and they would be remembered for all the work they’d done to help translate thousands of the clay tablets from the library’s archives. They’d achieved great fame for improving everything they did. Their achievements in building had put new emphasis on working with stone as a building material instead of mud brick. The results with that turned out to be more beautiful as well as lasting for hundreds or even thousands of years longer. Their genius was improving all aspects of Egyptian life. Their work with medicines and chemicals was legendary. The men had read and improved on Philosophy, Laws for society, Mathematics and many other related topics. They had translated many of the tablets and transcribed them to parchment scrolls. Even the Arts were improved by their input. It seemed that the operation gave them artistic skills as a part of their mental makeup. Their sculpting was legendary in the space of less than one year. They were well known for their sexual prowess too. As a result, there was a new class of courtesan created to fill their needs. These women did nothing else but serve the men. It was being arranged for the positions to be permanent. But all that might change now with their deaths. He would miss these four men greatly. But his thoughts now turned to these new men who’d been enhanced. Would they only live about a year? That information must have been on the part of the clay tablet that had been destroyed. The end of the tablet was damaged and unreadable.

Memros knew he had to tell the Governor right away and arranged a meeting at once. He had to insist, loudly, several times before the assistant to the Governor would let him have a meeting. Tarsahet had been very angry that his afternoon massage had been interrupted. He emerged from the massage room wrapped in a full-length sheet and a mean disposition showing on his face. When Memros told him about the four men’s deaths, his demeanor suddenly changed. Memros told him of the ramifications of the news. It probably meant that these new patients would die young too. Seemingly, the process accelerated and shortened their lifespans. They were elevated to the genius level at the expense of shortening of their lives. Tarsahet was confused as well as angry now. He told Memros to leave and come back tomorrow at noon. He needed to think about this for a while. Memros left.

Tarsahet was torn, mentally. He knew the young men personally and had known their families for many years. Although he was the Governor of this province, it was his personal policy to become acquainted with all the people of his province. He knew just about everyone. These men had volunteered because they were trying to improve their class. Their families would have better status in the community and a better standard of living. Although it looked like the operations were working as planned, it saddened him to think these young men would die so young. However, they knew the risks and had volunteered. After a while, he accepted the facts and made the decision that was dominating his peace of mind since his massage was interrupted. He called for Memros.

Memros knew, when he was summoned, that the success or failure of his plans now hinged on the Governor’s decision. There had been no clue about what the Governor’s decision was. He was anxious, guilt-ridden, yet concerned about this new development. The shortened lives of these men made it imperative that they take advantage of every opportunity to study this communal society and improve as much as they could before their time ran out. He was shown in to the Governor’s expansive office with no delays. As soon as Memros was seated, the assistant left leaving the two of them alone.

The Governor came right to the point. He told Memros that he intended to keep the plan in place, but now on a much more limited basis. He explained that he knew each of these men personally, and would see to it that their families were adequately compensated. However, he explained, the benefits of their enhancements more than justified the sacrifice of the major part of their lives. He gave the example of the great changes they’d made at the university where Memros had studied. Memros had agreed about their excellent work there. But, he said, the situation here in the lower Nile valley called for men with vision and great abilities. Because they were a new nation, it was of great importance to lay the foundations to be a great nation as well. He chided Memros for not knowing about the shortened lifespans, but agreed that no one could have known in advance. He had seen the clay tablets that Memros had studied, but deliberately didn’t mention to Memros that he was able to translate them too. A good Governor never gives away all his secrets. The damaged parts that Memros spoke of were at the end and it was a reasonable assumption that the knowledge could be ignored. He then advised Memros to go on with his work and do his best. He was nearly finished anyway. Memros thanked him for all he’d done and promised his best efforts with the new men. Then he took his leave.

It was the final day of his stay here, in this small community next to the Nile. He’d grown fond of the lush vegetation here near the river. Memros had called all of the new patients under his care together for a final indoctrination. He’d thought about what he would say to them all night. And here, next to the river, with a cool breeze blowing into the room, he explained about the new development. Thay all seemed to take it well. The optimism of youth must have kept them from believing that they would really die in a year. They all understood what would happen and Memros gave his personal apology for not knowing about it. But the young men said that nothing was changed. They’d still do what they said. Memros swelled with pride once more to see such purpose and devotion to their community these men demonstrated. They would go on to change the course of history for Egypt in the first few hundred years.

Memros completed packing his things and told the laborers to load them into the wagon that he and Saffra would take back to Alexandria. He walked down the dirt road to Saffra’s room to see if she was ready to leave. When he got there, he’d found that she’d already had her bag aboard the wagon. She’d been waiting for him. When he walked into the room, he noticed a small tearstreak on Saffra’s cheek. He knew she would miss the brash young man who was the first patient. After the first week, that young man had ignored Saffra and was cavorting with two concubines every night. She must have been hurt by his easy dismissal of her affections. But, in the end, she was a professional and would carry on like one. Memros was glad that he chose her for his nurse. He took her hand and led her outside to the waiting wagon.

Over time, Memros’s and Tarsahet’s names would be forgotten. And even the technique of modifying men’s brains to make them geniuses was forgotten. But the effect that early development of nation building had on Egypt was and is legendary. To this day and to my knowledge, Egypt is the only nation to have sprung up spontaneously into a world power overnight. All other civilizations had built up slowly over centuries. Egypt was just the opposite. And I wonder? Can this story be true?

A Plague Of Genius

Jim Hall

Fayetteville, United States

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

Why did Egypt spring up suddenly as a civilization? In the space of several hundred years, it became a super-power of the ancient world. All other known nations have built up slowly, over time. But Egypt couldn’t wait.


egypt ancient

Artwork Comments

  • Alison Pearce
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